“Engaging the Spirit World: Shamanism, Totemism, and Other Animistic Practices” anthology now available!

engagingSo, five years ago when I was still an integral part of the staff at Immanion Press/Megalithica Books, I put out a call for an anthology on various animistic topics. At the time I was already spending dozens of hours a month editing and copy editing and doing layout on books for IP/MB, and I wasn’t relying on my artwork for my income, and so what was one more book project? (Famous last words.)

However, not long afterward I ended up starting graduate school, which ate a big chunk of my time. Then I got divorced, which further complicated things. And then I got done with grad school and instead of a nice 40 hour a week day job as a counselor, I found myself being fully self-employed, which took up about 70 hours a week on average. The anthology, unfortunately, kept getting put on the back burner in favor of projects that were more likely to contribute to paying the bills (as an editor I’d only get paid in a small number of royalties, and while I love IP/MB’s content, they’re a small press and sales are quite modest). So practicality won out, and it was only recently (and with help from IP/MB on the last chunk of layout) that Engaging the Spirit World was finally brought into completion.

Personally, I feel it’s worth the wait. There are some fantastic essayists in there, writing on all sorts of neat approaches to shamanism, totemism, and other animistic topics. Some of them are leaning more toward traditional topics, while others go in some really unusual directions–from Shinto to neurotransmitter spirit guides, sacred body work and ecopsychology, there’s a wonderful variety of thoughts and essays in the wide world of animism!

Want to find out more? Head on over here to my website where you can find a table of contents, ordering info, and more!

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The Shaman Brings the Wisdom Back Home

This world is truly fucked up in a lot of ways.

There. I said it. Even with my optimism about the world, and human potential, and the resiliency of nature in general, there are still some things in this place that are heart-rendingly, disgustingly, infuriatingly screwed all beyond belief. I think we all have different opinions about what falls under that heading, but we can mostly agree on things like war and people dying needlessly, children being abused and then in turn abusing animals and later on other humans (including their own children), the extinction of species that didn’t have to die, and possibly the overuse of the Papyrus font in everything pagan. (Okay, maybe that last offense is in a league of its own.)

And I know that this fucked-upedness makes it tempting to run away and never come back. People want to live off the grid, not just to be eco friendly (even though a well-planned city can be more sustainable) but to get away from other humans except for a select few they deem “okay”. I’ve heard people talk about how humans as a species should just die out and the world would be better without us, emphasizing only the worst our species has done, and contemplating drowning the baby in the bathwater. This includes some deeply spiritual people I know who are quite connected to the nonhuman natural world. I’m constantly amazed by how many ways people can justify misanthropy.

I feel that frustration, too. I have days where I just get sick of statistics on how much rain forest has been cut down today and yet another person telling me that the addicts I counsel in my day job are “irredeemable” and should just be locked in prison for life. I don’t need another talking head telling me that somehow letting gay people marry will lead to terrible things that have no actual correlation to gay marriage, let alone any causative factors. Believe me, there’s enough stuff to make me so pissed off sometimes that I make Hothead Paisan look like a Disney Princess in comparison.

And I do take breaks from this crazy-ass world now and then. That’s why I go hiking and escape to the coast every few months. It’s why I hang out with people I love and who accept me in all my weirdness. It’s the reason for good novels and bad movies and hours of vegging on the internet. Self-care is a damned important thing for everyone, me included.

But I have to come back sometime. Part of my job as a (neo)shaman is to stay in the thick of things, as much as my health will allow. When a shaman journeys to the spirit world, or hides out in the woods, they don’t stay there permanently. There’s a community to be served, and knowledge and wisdom and information to be delivered unto them. Going on the journey, whether it’s through drumming and trance, or backpacking, or your escape of choice, is just part of the trip. It’s not just for your benefit. It’s for the people and other beings you serve, too. And that means climbing back out of whatever comfy hidey-hole you’ve discovered in the woods, whatever font of wisdom you’ve happened upon in the spirit world. No matter how not-fun it is, you gotta come back.

Why? Because in your head and your heart and your hands you carry things that can help lots of folks, and you have the ability to convey it. If you keep it to yourself, you’re not doing your job. “To keep silent” isn’t applicable here. Maybe you have to choose carefully how you convey what you have, and who your audience is, to make sure it has the best chance of making a constructive impact. (Pro tip: preaching, browbeating, insulting, and “my way or the highway” approaches don’t work too well on that count.)

In short: escapism isn’t shamanism. If you want to make people come to you, that’s fine; just make sure the way’s still clear, and the hurdles are not so high that most people are too discouraged to even try. We don’t just get the community we want to serve. We get the one we need to serve, which means sometimes working with the difficult, the obstinate, the downright offensive. Abandonment isn’t a part of it. Setting boundaries, sure. Knowing your own limits, of course. But writing off people entirely just so you can go hide in your little slice of paradise away from the hoi polloi? That’s taking the easy way out.

Go out and explore. Go play in the woods. Go take a break. But make damned sure you come back and keep up the good work. The world needs you, and me, and all of us, if we have a chance at getting through the current crises intact.

A Modern-Day Ordeal

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll notice that one of the themes I keep coming back to is Therioshamanism as a (neo)shamanic creation based on my own social and cultural background. The dominant non-indigenous culture in the US doesn’t have a clear shamanic figure, though I feel there are professions and roles here that can be analogous. On the one hand, American (neo)shamans may face accusations and feelings of illegitimacy, as though our lack of roots makes anything we do insufficient. And yet at the same time, there’s a great opportunity for creativity and flow in making something that is new and suited for the setting we found ourselves born into. I feel it is a fine balance between acknowledging how other cultures have formed their own shamanisms and related practices over hundreds or thousands of years, and making something that is uniquely ours instead of just wholesale copying. There’s a lot of trial and error, to be sure, and at times I really respect my fellow practitioners who are similarly trying to create something with no single existing cultural framework.

One of the themes that comes up as a topic of discussion is that of the ordeal. I have met people who claim that you must have an ordeal in a traditional manner–either a life-threatening physical illness, or a severe mental illness/breakdown–and that it absolutely can’t be a positive or constructive experience whatsoever. Nor, they say, is it something that you can openly seek out; it has to crash down on your head and ruin everything. Supposedly all these things separate the wannabes from the hard-core practitioners. I have a gentler approach. Not every ordeal a person goes through is a shamanic one; as attributed to John Watson/Ian MacLaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“. What I think distinguishes a shamanic ordeal, at least in part, is whether it directly contributes to one’s work as a (neo)shaman. It may still be a great challenge with a significant risk of failure, but it can be something you willingly choose to enter into as a furthering of your path and development. In this, it doesn’t always have to be the initiatory ordeal; ordeals can also be ongoing challenges.

Many of the things I have gone through weren’t ones that I chose. I would be lying if I said that over a decade of bullying leading to the development of an anxiety disorder was something I decided to experience. At the same time, while it did directly lead to my walking this path, I could potentially have chosen other ways to focus the aftermath of those feelings. I could have ended up an addict trying to drown out the anxiety attacks and traumatic memories. I could have ended up a Catholic nun in a cloister, seeking refuge in a holy sisterhood. In short, I don’t feel that my eventual walking of a (neo)shamanic path was something preordained. But it’s where I ended up, and that personal set of decisions and paths has to be factored in as well as the cultural milieu.

Because I live in such a highly individualistic society, I don’t find it surprising that so many (neo)shamans enter their paths in part due to personal benefit–not in the case of “making lots of money”, but in “finding a focus for things that hurt” or “a way to grow in a healthier manner”. Rather than being a wholly self-serving path, though, (neo)shamanism has the added benefit of reminding us that we are part of a community, and emphasizing the need to be an intermediary in that community. Individualism is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes the dominant US culture errs a little (or a lot) too far to that end. All things in moderation, to include self-identity and group-identity.

That being said, I don’t think there’s any shame in a (neo)shaman actively pursuing an ordeal in part to better themselves as practitioners and as people. The more any practitioner of any art, science, etc. knows and experiences, the better they are to serve their communities. This entire post came up in my head in part because I recently acquired my Wilderness First Responder training and certification. It was very much a challenge; for 8 days straight I spent 8-9 hours a day in ongoing training, to include daily hands-on drills and practice, plus an additional 2+ hours of homework every night. I had to process an immense amount of information each day and demonstrate that I understood its applications, and I went home every night almost too exhausted to do my homework. For those 8 days, WFR training was all I did–and there was no guarantee I’d pass. It challenged me in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and when I came out of it with my certification, it took me a while to absorb the reality that I’d succeeded.

Just as with going to grad school for a counseling Master’s degree, this is something that I chose to enter into despite the challenges because I wanted to be better able to serve my community. I spend enough time outdoors, both alone and with others, that I wanted to be able to act in case of a medical emergency. And as I do sometimes lead workshops at pagan events, to include some that are outside in fairly remote areas, I want to be able to take care of the participants on multiple levels. (Even if I don’t hold sweat lodges, I certainly haven’t forgotten about James Arthur Ray.) And even outside of a backcountry context, having basic first aid training could come in handy some day.

These all tie into my ongoing development of a (neo)shamanic role in my culture. I’m still in the process of developing what the counseling end of all this will look like (and I’m continuing to take a few courses through my alma mater), but each experience I have pulls it into more cohesion. I’m okay with it taking a while to come together; I’m still able to help people through writing and workshops and one on one work together. And I think whatever I end up with, it’ll be something that I feel fills that void, to an extent, that we have in this culture through the lack of a single shamanic figure. It’ll most likely be an ongoing work in progress, too, which I’m okay with. No system is stagnant, and if I can leave something for others to build on in the future, so much the better.

In my vision of a (neo)shamanism for my culture, I don’t see ordeals as being these uniformly awful things to be avoided. Challenging, yes, but there’s already so much negativity and discouragement here that I don’t want to include that idea of “it’s not real unless you hate it” in what I’m developing. I want to be a constructive practitioner, offering support and compassion to a community that’s all too often cynical and jaded, and I want to continue excising these things from myself. It doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the problems in the world, or the fact that some ordeals and challenges are unwanted and destructive and we don’t always come out for the better. But the skills learned in constructive ordeals can come in quite handy when dealing with destructive experiences in general, and isn’t being able to weather the storms better a good thing in general?

Coming Out of the Crazy Closet

This is a post I’ve written and re-written a number of times. It’s probably one of the most difficult posts I’ve composed, simply because I feel so vulnerable about it. But I’m finally at a place where I feel comfortable sharing this here.

I have a mental illness, specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my life; I can remember its roots in being a particularly sensitive and easily-worried child still in elementary school (and it just got progressively worse from there). But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until a couple of years ago, when I was seeing my therapist for sessions during graduate school. I told her of my suspicions, as I’d read the DSM-IV cover to cover for my diagnosis class, and so we sat down with the book and looked at the criteria for a variety of conditions. GAD was the one that fit the best, and all of the criteria were very familiar to me.

So why am I telling you this here, on my blog that’s supposed to be about shamanism? For one thing, it’s the platform I use the most for writing these days, and I want to have a basic “here’s Lupa on GAD” post that I can refer to when talking about this later on. Talking is good therapy for me, writing being included in “talking”. If being more open about my anxiety helps me to get better, then that’s an additional bonus.

I am a strong supporter of mental illness awareness and advocacy, moreso after having gotten my Master’s in counseling psychology. Even though I understand and empathize with my reasons for having stayed mostly closeted on this matter in the past, I have felt for a while like a hypocrite. I encourage others to be open about their mental conditions if they deem it the right time, and I feel that more open discussion about mental health, to include careful self-disclosure, can help facilitate better resources and less prejudice.

Yet I have hidden my anxiety away like a bad habit. Even having that degree, even having worked as a counselor, even knowing and believing beyond a doubt that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, my own fear–and the anxiety–kept me quiet. And now I’m breaking that silence. Why?

While I have not yet “officially” used my Master’s degree, having spent the year since graduation being a fully self-employed author and artist (and recovering from the stress of grad school and corporate life before that), there’s still the possibility that some day I may need to get a job as a counselor at an agency. Even though the counseling profession is supposed to work against the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses, there is still a strong taboo against mental health professionals who are mentally ill. Even though such professionals as Marsha Linehan (the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and Kay Redfield Jamison have publicly discussed their illnesses, the stigma remains–especially if you aren’t a well-established professional yet. So even though I did well in my year-long internship counseling addicts in an inpatient setting, and was open with my supervisor there about my GAD, and we worked together to make sure it wasn’t a liability, I still worry that other supervisors, potential employers, and the like may not be so supportive.

Clients can go either way. Some clients are put off by knowing their therapist isn’t perfectly psychologically hale, especially as mental health professionals are often idealized as “perfect authorities”. But some clients feel more comfortable knowing that the person in the chair across from them might know a bit about what they themselves have been struggling with. I never told any of my clients in my internship about my anxiety, but having GAD did help me to empathize more with them. It also made me more aware of my own boundaries, and where the GAD could weaken my ability to deal with sometimes very challenging clients.

Then there’s the more general stigma. Many people still equate mental illness with everything from homelessness to senseless shootings as in Aurora, CO. Mental illnesses are seen as ticking time bombs. Or they’re dismissed; we are told to “just get over it”. We who have these illnesses are marginalized and stigmatized. It’s easier to ignore us or make fun of us than to help us and try to understand the complexity of our different way of viewing the world. Some people still even conflate alternative spiritual views as a whole with mental illness, and there’s the chance that me being out of the crazy closet will just fuel their misconceptions.

Continuing to hide my anxiety disorder just perpetuates stigmatization. One of the most effective methods of teaching is modeling. If I model the idea that it’s okay to be mentally ill and open about it, if I can just talk about it like an everyday (albeit unwanted) part of my life, then hopefully I can help others to do the same, whether they’re mentally ill or not. I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have told me that my writing here, and in my books and other places, has been a huge help and inspiration to them. By coming out as having GAD, my hope is that I can continue to provide inspiration to others fighting their own battles with mental illnesses.

There’s one other reason I’m bringing my anxiety up here, and that’s shamanism itself (see? It IS relevant here!) There is a misconception that because some indigenous shamans have had mental illnesses as part of their initiations/shamanisms, that this means that you have to have a mental illness to be a shaman, or even that mental illnesses ARE shamanism. I find these to be inaccurate and dangerous conflations.

First, it’s demeaning to indigenous cultures to assume they don’t know the difference between someone with a mental illness, and a shamanic practitioner. While there is some crossover in some cultures between SOME mental illnesses and SOME shamanic and spiritual traditions, it’s specific in degree and nature in each culture and even each community, and to say that they all see them as one and the same is short-sighted and inaccurate.

Second, here in the dominant culture in the United States, it is downright dangerous to equate mental illness with shamanism. “Mental illness” is a broad, broad concept. If we include the various entries in the DSM-IV (some of which are developmental disorders rather than “sicknesses”), we’re talking everything from autism to depression and anxiety disorders to Cluster B personality disorders such as Antisocial and Borderline. If shamanism helps you deal with your mental illness better, whether as a client or a practitioner, great! But there is no cure-all or universal treatment for mental illnesses in general, and I oppose the broad-brush assumption that shamanism is the magic bullet.

And there is one more reason I am talking about my anxiety disorder here on my shamanism blog: I want to emphasize that for me, GAD is NOT a facilitator of my shamanism. I know some shamanic practitioners of varying traditions for whom their mental illnesses are assets, or at least tools. And some of them do help manage their illnesses with their shamanic practices.

But I know for a fact that I am not the only shaman who would give up their mental illness in a heartbeat if they had the chance. Reducing the stigma against mental illness doesn’t mean automatically stopping treatment and accepting things as they are forever more. I’m still trying to get rid of my anxiety disorder. GAD does not make me a stronger person. GAD is my weakness, my Achilles’ Heel. If I did not have my anxiety, if I could shuck it off of me like an overworn, stinking old coat, I would be so much the better for it. I could function better as a person, as a shaman, as a professional of several fields. GAD cripples me at times. It is not my friend.

Do you know what GAD is like for me? It’s daily, almost constant, worrying over things that I know I shouldn’t worry about, but that my limbic system tells me to be on guard against anyway. I’m not talking about being aware of spirits. I’m talking about nights of insomnia fueled by the fear that I’ll get up the next day and all my money will be gone, or that my partner will suddenly leave me for someone else, or that I’ll die of cancer before I ever get the chance to own my own home. It’s overreacting to small setbacks because my brain automatically catastrophizes and focuses on the very-worst-case scenario in perceived self-defense. It’s being irritable and short-tempered because everything just hurts, where emotionally and psychologically I feel like I’ve been flayed and every single stimulus is agony.

It’s being so exhausted from trying to keep my emotions on an even enough keel to be able to function on a day to day basis that I sometimes have to take a mental health day to recover from the fatigue of that daily battle. It’s the constant ache in my trapezius muscles because I carry all that tension and worry in my shoulders. It’s knowing that the chronic acid reflux the anxiety caused could kill me early with esophageal cancer. It’s knowing that I am at a greater risk of heart disease because my anxiety puts such constant heightened stress on my body, to include abnormal levels of adrenaline and other such chemicals.

None of these things make me a better shaman. Okay, yes, you can argue that my experiences have been “character building” and I’m a better shaman and person for having “resiliency” and “empathy” built from dealing with anxiety for decades. But some day I want to be able to say “I used to have GAD, but I finally overcame it, and I’m better for it”. I refuse to let go of that goal to settle for the consolation prize of “might as well just be a shaman since I’m nutty as a fruitbat anyway”. Part of being a shaman is healing others, but part of it is also healing the self, and even if I never do get completely better, I’m not going to stop trying to find my cure, and my path to a life without abnormal levels of anxiety.

So there you have it. I’m out of the crazy closet. And I want to note that I use the term “crazy” not in its derogatory manner, but tongue in cheek, and with a bit of cynical humor. When the anxiety really gets going, I really do feel crazy in that out of control, my-brain’s-been-hijacked way. But I’m so used to talking about “anxiety” in serious, overwrought tones that talking about “the crazy” or “I had too much crazysauce today” or asking my partner “You still love me even though I’m a crazy girl, right?” allows me to acknowledge it with some contextual silliness. Those I use it with know I’m not crazy in the stereotypical sense, but it’s a convenient code for the illness that pervades my life.

So hi, I’m Lupa, and I’m crazy. But I’m working on getting less crazy.

(As with all my posts, comments are screened until I decide they can come out to play. I know most, if not all, of you will be perfectly cool and supportive about all this. On the off chance someone decide to be an asshat, know that your comment will be BALEETED before it has a chance to gasp for its first breath of air.)

This is What Frustration Looks Like

Okay. This is going to be more of a disjointed rant than a highly polished essay, so bear with me.

I try really, really, really, really, really, really hard to be aware of issues of cultural appropriation when it comes to shamanism, and paganism in general. I do my best to address them both in theory and practice. And yet I still feel like no matter what I do, it’s still treading on someone’s toes somewhere. Not that I need to please everyone, but as a member of the dominant culture drawn to work with certain spirits in a particular neoshamanic paradigm, I like to at least think I’m putting forth effort to address the issues of racism, appropriation, and oppression in non-indigenous shamanic practices. And I’m open to more suggestions on how I can do better. I do my best to listen.

But sometimes even I get confused as to what’s supposed to be the best practice. Here are all the messages I’ve gotten from different people on what we should be doing to “do it right”:

–That’s not what shamans do! You actually need to know what indigenous shamans do, so find out more about them.
–Actually, don’t find out about indigenous non-European traditions if you’re not part of them because they’re not yours to use. Look to your European ancestors’ traditions instead.
–Don’t look to your European ancestors’ traditions because you’re an American, not German/Celtic/Slavic/etc. in culture. Create your own traditions.
–Wait! Stop creating your own shamanic tradition from your own cultural perspective! You’re appropriating by looking at general concepts from other cultures and you can’t do that! Go make something of your own without any inspiration from any other culture.
–You’re creating a tradition from scratch? How n00bish. Quit pretending and go find out what real shamans do.
–Don’t call yourself a shaman. Call yourself a witch. Except that’s not really what witches do.
–Actually, call yourself a druid. Druids are European, right? And they like trees, too!
–Or here, how about this other non-shaman term whose commonly understood connotation really doesn’t quite fit what you do and may still piss someone off?

And so forth. Do you see how this can get frustrating? Yes, these are all coming from different people; the critics of neoshamanism are not a monolithic group. And I am exaggerating and generalizing those statements above somewhat, but I’m also trying to make the point that in all the criticism of non-indigenous shamanisms, there’s never really been one good, solid answer on how to address the known issues, to include from the critics both within and outside of neoshamanic practice.

I guess I just don’t want to see non-indigenous shamanic practitioners get so frustrated with being constantly told what they’re doing wrong that they end up ignoring all the criticisms entirely, and go their own way without even considering the potential negative effects they could have. Let me say this, to be clear–I am in complete agreement that there’s plenty of fucked-uped-ness in neoshamanism. There are still a lot of people who are utterly racist and may not even know it, who romanticize indigenous cultures, and even those who knowingly misrepresent themselves for profit. I think there are good reasons for the criticism. Where my frustration is isn’t even that we’re not getting special acknowledgement cookies for trying harder to not be racist and appropriative. And while the experience of Minority A is not the same as the experience of Minority B, I’ve tried thinking about my own experiences as a woman trying to explain misogyny to people and how frustrating that can be, and wonder if indigenous people get the same sort of frustration trying to explain appropriation to others. So this isn’t just “It’s all YOUR fault for not telling me what to do!” I know the answer is to listen to the people who are oppressed, and I’m trying my very best to have my ears open to what they’re saying, to voices that have too often been silenced.

But I’m also at my wit’s end today, having watched yet another attempt to create a conceptual shamanism for a culture that never had it get torn down as racist and appropriative. There has to be some answer in between “Just ignore the critics because they don’t have anything useful to say” and “if you don’t already have a shamanic tradition in your culture then you don’t get to practice shamanism ever”. I just don’t know where that is right this moment, beyond my own personal solution that I’ve been sharing here for years.

So. What do you all think?

I Am in Awe

This past weekend I set up a vending booth at the Yule Bazaar. The first day was held down at the Unitarian Universalist church in Salem, OR, and the branch of organizers there had arranged for a group of traditional Aztec dancers to come and share some of their dances. These weren’t white people “inspired by” the Aztecs; these were folks in the broader Hispanic community here in the area who had connections with people in Mexico who had still hung onto pieces of the indigenous Aztec lore. This was knowledge that had gone underground as a result of the genocide perpetrated by Spanish invaders, and over the past fifteen years or so there’s been more of an effort to try to combine what’s left and recreate the traditions.

One of the dancers spent a good amount of time giving a lot of context for how the knowledge had been revived, and what the importance of the practices was. I was especially fascinated by the assertion that each footstep, each move, in each dance had its own special meaning and piece of lore; the shell-covered ankle cuffs the dancers wore that made lovely ringing noises as they moved represented the various sounds that running water makes–not just THE sound, but many sounds. The spear that one of the dancers carried wasn’t a weapon, but a tool to pierce through to truth. And so forth. I paid close attention to each individual step and move, the voices, the conch shells and other tools, how everything flowed. I was awed and humbled.

It’s not my first time watching other cultures’ dances; I’ve seen dancers at powwows, for example, though it’s been many years. However, probably due to my age and better context this moved me even more than those earlier beautiful experiences.

What struck me the most was just how rich in symbolism and meaning every element of the dance was. I realized that what I am creating here in some ways pales by comparison, not because I’m not sincere or not trying hard enough, but because what I was watching had been developed from the observations, experimentations, and sheer creativity of thousands upon thousands of people over many generations. All of those people had contributed their day by day observation of the sounds of rivers, or the bright colors of bird feathers. These were woven into centuries of myth and legend, art and dance and other expression.

So many of us practicing neoshamanisms simply don’t have that sort of shared community support. Getting together once a week for a drum circle, or once a month for a full moon ritual, can’t compare to a community living on the same piece of land with the same people for many lifetimes. We can have good friends, and we can have good family, but so many of us live far away from our families, or have families who are not supportive of our paths. Friends move away; we move, too. I have moved an average of once a year since 2001, and am now in my fourth state. I can keep up with old friends online, but it’s not the same.

This is not to say that I am deterred. But it does offer me some idea of what is missing in much of neoshamanism, and some direction in further developing my own practice. I can’t necessarily create community, and it’s highly unlikely that I would given how much of a solitary I tend to be. But I can at least explore Meaning more deeply, and connect it to more than just intellectual understanding of “This is what North means”. Which is a lot of what I’ve been doing anyway, but I have more inspiration now. Not taking from the Aztec dancers, of course, but looking at my own relationships.

The “S” Word

Recently I got into a Twitter conversation with a few awesome folks about the use of the word “shaman” for distinctly non-indigenous (and non-Evenk) practitioners. I’ve also read a couple of recent blog posts talking about the issue, or at least mentioning it.

I do use the term “shaman” self-referentially. I do not see what I do as being the same as what an Evenk shaman does, or what the holy person/medicine person/etc. of another indigenous culture does. Everything I do, I do with the conscious realization that I am a white chick from the Midwest, whose closest cultural appelation might be “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can”. What I do is self-created and self-taught, honed by experience, but also by trading notes with other, largely non-indigenous practitioners. I am also aware that using a term that was cultivated in form and context in a largely collective, communal culture a half a world away, with largely male practitioners, and a decidedly not-urban landscape. I am quite familiar with the word’s roots.

But language is fluid. It grows, and it shifts, and it evolves over time. No matter how much we may rage against it, the current of language change can’t be stopped. It’s why I speak modern English, not any of the previous variants used by Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even earlier writers. English is especially notorious for nabbing whatever words it likes–as the infamous quote by James Nicoll goes, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. Which really does speak to the violence that English-speaking populations have done to others, admittedly.

And I do carry that knowledge of how the term “shaman” came to be assimilated into English with a broader set of definitions than the original. We first came by it through the work of anthropologists who were largely working from a Eurocentric perspective, studying people who were being oppressed, and sometimes contributing to that oppression, even if unwittingly at times, through patronizing or otherwise inaccurate portrayals. Later, the word was “borrowed” by neoshamanic practitioners, some of whom misrepresented what they were doing as indigenous. This helped the term “shaman” go from referring to a very specific practitioner in the Evenk culture, to being applied to just about anything that looks primitive (just try searching for “shaman” on Etsy sometime!).

Despite all this, I still use the term “shaman” for myself. In part, it’s because of familiarity. Just like “totem”, a lot of people in this culture have at least some vague idea of what a shaman is (in the broad sense), and it’s just easier than trying to use a new word and then explain it to everyone I talk to about this stuff, who will then most likely go “Oh, you mean like SHAMANISM!”

However, I will admit that I also feel a kinship to shamanic practitioners of various cultures. Note that I am not saying I feel that what I am doing is exactly what they’re doing. Many indigenous practitioners go through trials and training I can’t even imagine. Hell, even the non-shamanic rites of passage of some cultures would have me running hard in the other direction, happy to embrace my cowardice and childishnes (Google “bullet ant ritual” and you’ll see what I mean. Yikes.). But I have gone through my own challenges as well. Anyone who has been through graduate school knows that it’s meant, in part, to weed out those who aren’t quite a good fit for their chosen field. And the program I went through to get my counseling psych degree was both intellectually and emotionally challenging on a regular basis; there’s a reason one of the requirements for completing the program was getting at least ten hours of counseling as a client. All these things also contributed to my own growth as a shaman, parallel to their “mundane” purposes.

I choose the term “shaman” to acknowledge that I have been through these and other passages, even before the grad school process, that I have spent years cultivating relationships with the spirits, and doing work on the behalf of both them and my community (and I have a very broad idea of community, and it’s not all human). I don’t feel that it’s too proud to acknowledge the work I have shown, and to connect that to my efforts to be as close to a shamanic figure in this culture as I can be. We don’t have a single “shaman” role in this culture; it simply was never there. But I have chosen to live out roles that I feel are analogous, as much as they can be. I am doing the very best that I can with what I have on hand–and what I have is fifteen years of experience, reading, practice, mistakes, and a whole host of other day to day factors that have all built up into this path I am continuing to form as I go.

I feel that sometimes refusing to use the term “shaman” is a subtle way of saying–or fearing that someone will say–that what we do in this culture isn’t as good, or as effective, or as spiritually connected, as what indigenous people do. I am tired of the unspoken value judgement that says that non-indigenous shamanisms can’t be as good or as effective for the cultures they are created in because they aren’t as old or as well-traveled as indigenous shamanisms, that a non-indigenous person who goes and trains in Peru or Brazil or Siberia or even here in the states on a reservation is automatically practicing a path that is superior. Maybe that fear started out as a check on those who didn’t think about things like cultural appropriation, or who just read a book or two and called themselves “shamans”.

But I am tired of it being off-limits to people who have put in the work, just because that work may have been from a lot of solo trial and error instead of from a teacher of a long-standing tradition. And so as a way of acknowledging the work I’ve put into this path over the years, I use the term “shaman” in its broader context, with an awareness of its roots, a caution surrounding its weaknesses, and an eye toward its healthier cultivation in relation to a variety of traditions.

I am a shaman.